Going Back to School? Advice for the Adult Learner

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If I’d achieved any distinction in my high school yearbook, I believe it would have been “least likely to go to college.” I lacked educational focus as a teenager, and I graduated high school with no real educational goals. Wishing to please my mother, I attended a private business school, but I only lasted for a few months. Then I did my best to avoid school.

I knew I was going to be a firefighter; I had known that since I was five. In the early 1970s, however, you had to be 21 years old to apply. I was just killing time.

While killing time, I did some ride-alongs with the police department. I was somewhat interested, but the fact that you had to have a two-year degree to apply didn’t appeal to me. My high-school sweetheart’s (now wife) dad was a firefighter, so I spent some time with him. He advised me to obtain an EMT certification. Seeing how this could help my job prospects, I capitulated.

Getting my EMT certification was a turning point that started a lifelong process of going back to school while also working and raising a family. Since that point, my continuing education and career development have been all by design.

My educational journey hasn’t stopped. However, it hasn’t been without difficulties and frustrations, logistical challenges, family conflicts and costs—all of which begs the question, what’s the point?


Up the Ladder
Soon after obtaining my EMT, I was working and attending junior college at night, sometimes carrying a full load (12 units). My two-year college degree took five years to complete. It’s interesting to note that when I graduated in January 1977, after testing unsuccessfully for the fire service for three years, I had three job offers—a coincidence, or did maturity and education collide? At the time, all that was required was a GED and EMT; I had a little more. Those with associate’s degrees were being hired over those who didn’t.

After being hired, I had a pretty good idea of my educational goals. However, I was encouraged not to go to school and harangued by older firefighters about my degree—“Why do you need that?” Looking back, I realize that I entered the fire service at a point in time when formal education was just becoming a factor in hiring. My mentors came from the trades and military; they had very blue-collar backgrounds. I entered during a time when more education (a certification in fire science or technology) was valued and ALS (also requiring high levels of education) was established. Both were resisted by the existing culture. At that time the fire service was taking blue-collar individuals and teaching them in areas of white-collar skills, such as prehospital care and chemistry in hazardous materials. Later, as a training officer in the late 1980s, I did the opposite: We hired white-collar individuals and taught them blue-collar skills.

Nonetheless, when I entered the fire service it did not take long for me to realize that I wanted more responsibility, influence and job security, and I set my sights on the captain’s position. My plan was to obtain my Fire Officer Certification and a bachelor’s degree, nothing more. Simultaneously, I would concentrate on my craft, gain experience and possibly teach. I was just starting to truly understand the Coleman Competency Model: What you don’t know, you need to learn; once you’ve learned it, you need to teach it to reinforce it.

In rapid succession, in my late 20s I attended two four-year universities: San Diego State University, where I obtained my certificate in fire administration, then the University of Redlands for a bachelor’s in management. It took me five years to get a two-year degree and seven years to get a four-year degree—obviously I was not a math major! I was an adult learner and, I imagine, no different than you.

Making Sacrifices
To provide some context, when I graduated with my bachelor’s degree I was 29, oftentimes the oldest student in my classes. I had been married for eight years and had two children. I was working a shift and a side job, and my classes were typically more than an hour away. I took many night classes, and more than 40 Saturday sessions, each requiring eight hours of attendance—all of which required an untold number of shift trades and time away from my family.

Loans were required for me to go to school, at a period of time when we truly couldn’t afford it. Furthermore, it was totally out of balance with regard to family and work life. In a way, getting a degree was a selfish act.

The bottom line: It was a struggle. I wasn’t the only one who made sacrifices; my family did as well.

If It’s So Hard, Why Do It?
You must have a powerful and compelling reason to go back to school. Your focus and vision has to be crystal clear; if you have “the what” or “the why,” you can deal with any “how.”

Before you chart an educational plan, define your expected return on the investment. Not only must the reason be powerful and compelling for you, but for your family as well. Try writing a personalized vision statement that incorporates an educational component. Remember Stephen Covey’s advice: “Begin with the end in mind.”

You should also understand that education is typically an objective of another goal, not the goal itself. Example: To be a firefighter I needed an associate’s degree; to be an officer I needed a bachelor’s degree, and to be fire chief I needed a master’s degree. However, over time, education can become a goal in itself—knowledge for the sake of knowledge. You will find this to be true the older you get and as the promotions decrease or cease.

Adult Learner Characteristics
Adult learners are surpassing traditional students in the higher education arena. The National Center for Education Statistics noted in a 2002 study that nearly three-quarters of American undergraduate students were classified as a nontraditional students; of those, 46% were so defined because of “delayed enrollment” (i.e., they are going back to school as adults). It has been reported that more than half of non-traditional students enroll in two-year institutions.

Adult learners typically have more life experience than their non-adult classmates. They bring this life experience to the classroom in ways that affect how they answer questions, absorb new material and interact with others.

Adults learn best when the following requirements are met:

  • The learning is purposeful rather than theoretical.
  • The class includes other adult learners.
  • The exercises allow the student to build upon past knowledge, skills and experience.
  • The exercises allow students to share past learning with each other.
  • The environment is respectful toward all students.


In addition, adult learners often exhibit the following characteristics:

  • Seek educational solutions to getting where they want to be in life.
  • Have specific results in mind for education.
  • Not dependent on others for direction.
  • Often skeptical about new information; prefer to try it out before accepting it.
  • Seek education that relates or applies directly to their perceived needs.
  • Accept responsibility for their own learning.


How Do You Do It?
Do the above characteristics sound familiar? If so, and if you’re going back to school mid-career, here are a couple of absolutes from one who has been there.

  • Get organized. Inherently, firefighters are not driven by timelines. Part of the lure of the job and, frankly, the excitement that comes with it, is not knowing what the next alarm will bring. Every day is different and we like that. Attending class, on the other hand, is very predictable. To be successful in school, you need to develop a whole new work/school/life balance approach, which starts with organization and planning.
  • Secure the support of your family, co-workers and boss. It will take years to get a degree, so those around you need to be OK with the fact that you’ll have less time to spend with them and that there will be requests for schedule changes, etc.
  • Be self-reliant. As firefighters, we take great pride in being able to take care of an incident given whatever resources we have (limited or adequate). Similarly, your life is also your responsibility. When we entered the fire service, we were chomping at the bit to be in charge, to care for others. Your mid-career education endeavors should be attacked with the same vigor, confidence and responsibility. Winston Churchill once said, “Responsibly is the price of greatness.”
  • Be prepared to deal with setbacks. You may start and stop a program; it may take longer than you thought it would; you may struggle to master an online learning interface while younger students whiz through the screens as though it’s second nature. But all of these can be overcome with persistence.


Final Thoughts
A word of caution: While you’re pursuing a degree, your work/life/family balance will be out of whack. Getting a degree mid-career is a calculated sacrifice to influence promotions and/or achieve a better financial situation for you and your family. It’s a short-term sacrifice with long-term rewards.

Remember: Education is an investment in yourself, one that will open doors you didn’t know existed, expand your knowledge and develop your critical-thinking skills. No one can ever take that away from you. 



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